Confidence vote

15th April 2005 at 01:00
Taking the role of president of a newly independent developing country gives pupils a lively appreciation of the realities of power, says Jerome Monahan

The President for a Day Experience offers a heady mix of UK politics, international development, moral and religious debate and, for a lucky few, a taste of fair trade chocolate. The event is a spin-off from the President for a Day interactive computer game, published by the Damaris Trust. Since its release in 2000, it has become a bestseller, with about a third of all secondary schools buying site licences. However, feedback suggested that some teachers felt they were ill-equipped to deal with the issues it raised, so the Trust devised a one-day workshop led by specialist presenters.

Chris Seppala, head of RE at Fulston Manor School in Sittingbourne, Kent, arranged a day for Year 12 and 13 students last month. It was led by Ian Hamlin and Jane Hawkins, using a PowerPoint presentation based on the CD-Rom to put the students in the shoes of President Nulagi attempting to guide his country Mobesi (a rough parallel of Zambia) through the economic struggles following independence from colonial rule.

First on screen was a suitably up-beat documentary about the country, celebrating its resources and optimistic people, all looking forward to growing prosperity. The scene then shifted to the presidential office and the view across Nulagi's desk as three different ministers pitch their policies. The first decision was the most fundamental: the choice between rural self-sufficiency, a mono-economy or a more modern diversified path to development. Proposal number three came from a nattily dressed young technocrat, not that this impressed Katie Lovelock, who was all for the mono-option. With opinion divided, workshop leader Ian Hamlin embarked on the first of the day's UK-political digressions, explaining the role of select committees in Parliament in teasing out the truth on controversial issues of the day. The room then voted, the majority going with the diversified option. It was at this point that events took their first lurch into misfortune.

The students were told that a minister had run off with a good portion of the investment money lent by overseas banks. Their advisers were as eager as ever to offer options - one of which was to halt all development and send out the bloodhounds. Cue Ian Hamlin's second set of insights about the UK Parliament, this time focused on debating conventions in the House, including the red lines (two sword-lengths apart) behind which opposing speakers are required to stand.

This acts as a prelude to a debate on whether or not to borrow further funds. Sam Snutch strongly advocated the cautious option. "We must find that man and give him a good slap," he said. "We can't keep borrowing every time there is a problem."

His rhetoric carried the day and the House voted to put development on hold. Unfortunately, the population's expectations couldn't be so easily suspended and their decision heralded a burst of machine-gun fire and the news that they had been overthrown in a coup.

The presenters allowed the students a second chance: to go for more borrowing and extending their collective stay in office. Not that their fortunes improved, as advisers rushed to tell them of a sudden hike in interest rates that threatened Mobesi with even greater impoverishment.

By now, the Fulston Manor sixth-formers were alert to the central formula of the game, that whatever they attempted the options would always tend towards further indebtedness.

Another vote being required, the presenters explained the system in the House of Commons, bells, lobbies and three-line whips included. It was then the students' turn to carry out a parliamentary division of their own on a motion to reduce international loans. The ayes had it, but a further burst of machine-gun fire underlined that again this was likely to prove an unpopular decision. Later, they opted for a bridging loan.

At this point, Ian Hamlin started distributing the chocolate, rewarding one student who had been secretly working on behalf of an international credit organisation. This raised the issue of ethics in office, illustrated with recent examples of alleged corruption involving British politicians.

The final stages of the event included the chance to swap persona, becoming the president of an international lending agency, weighing up a new set of advisers' views about how to respond to Mobesi's financial crisis. In groups, the students developed a series of presentations based on statements such as: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" and "Your life does not consist of the things that you own".

Fulston Manor students used their limited time to create poetry and mock television programmes among other lively responses. "This is the key moment in the day, when students really take ownership of the conference's lessons," explains Ian Hamlin.

According to Chris Seppala, the feedback received from his students was highly appreciative: "The event made a very strong impression on them. We have a 'culture of confidence' at Fulston, and the President for a Day Experience played to a lot of our students' strengths, particularly their willingness to take risks and pitch in with ideas."

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